Putting Strange Notions on the Internet

Founder of Catholic-Atheist Dialogue Site Comments on Seeking Truth

New York, (Zenit.org) Kathleen Naab | 2995 hits

Catholics are too prone to live in a bubble, says Brandon Vogt, the founder of a new Catholic-atheist dialogue site. And the problem with the bubble-abode, he suggests, is that Our Lord is calling us "not to buckle down in the Upper Room but to burst out into the world."

That desire to "burst out into the world" led Vogt to found Strange Notions, a Web gathering place for Catholics and atheists to come together and talk about science, reason, the meaning of life, the question of God's existence, and other such things.

Strange Notions has only been running for several weeks, but it's attracting attention -- and not just from Catholics eager to defend their beliefs. "Curious skeptics" are also weighing in, Vogt says. "People are hungry for this sort of dialogue."

ZENIT asked Vogt to tell us more about the site and if there is any hope for dialogue in today's world.

ZENIT: What is Strange Notions all about?

Vogt: Strange Notions is the central place of discussion for Catholic and atheists. Every day visitors find new articles, videos, and rich comment box discussion surrounding life's Big Questions.

The site's name comes from a colorful story in the Book of Acts. In Chapter 17, we read about the great missionary, St. Paul, landing at Athens, Greece. He debates with the Jews in the synagogue, then the townspeople in the public square, and then is invited to the Areopagus, a prestigious hill where Athenian philosophers gather "for nothing else but telling or hearing something new." When he stands among the circle of pagan philosophers, St. Paul appeals to what they all hold in common -- devotion, philosophy, poetry. He announces the Risen Lord but in the language and imagery of his listeners. This intrigues the Athenian elite, who say, "you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean" (Acts 17:20). StrangeNotions.com is designed to mimic that first meeting of Christians and atheists, allowing both to discover intriguing "strange notions" on either side.

I've been blown away by the results so far. In the first couple months we've seen over 300,000 pageviews and 17,500 comments, the large majority of them from curious skeptics. People are hungry for this sort of dialogue.

ZENIT: In a culture marked by certain issues that bring out very strong feelings, and that are often associated with religious belief (e.g., religious freedom, same-sex marriage, etc), does Strange Notions have a particular role?

Vogt: I think so. As most of us know, these hot-button issues are marked by angry, irrational dialogue. People on both sides scream past each other, or they fall prey to one of many logical fallacies -- dismissing an argument because of its source (ad hominem fallacy), misrepresenting the other side's position (straw man fallacy), etc.

We at Strange Notions think people can do better than this. We're convinced Catholics and atheists can come together and tackle the most controversial questions with reason and charity, even when our answers stand completely at odds.

So in my view, the unique role of Strange Notions is to inject civil, high-minded dialogue into discussions typically fueled by anger and irrationality.

ZENIT: Benedict XVI's "Courtyard of the Gentiles" project is in some sense similar to Strange Notions. How do you see Strange Notions fitting into the mission of the universal Church?

Vogt: I'm a big fan of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" project. The "Courtyard," of course, is an allusion to the area outside the Jewish Temple where Jews and gentiles met. It's a neat and desperately needed concept today. We Catholics tend to isolate ourselves in the world -- offline and online -- building bubbles around the people we engage, the places we go, and the content we consume. The problem is that Our Lord calls us not to buckle down in the Upper Room but to burst out into the world. We can only do that if we mix and mingle with people who are not like us, to go, like St. Paul, into foreign territories, even those places where our message is likely to be mocked or dismissed. The Pope's "Courtyard" project offers an innovative way to do that, uniting believers and non-believers around cultural events like plays, music, films, festivals, panel discussions, and more.

StrangeNotions.com is slightly different than the Pope's "Courtyard" project. We're more interested in grassroots dialogue than high-level cultural events. We bring in some of the best Catholic scientists, philosophers, artists, and cultural commentators, but unlike the "Courtyard" project, the real action happens in our comment boxes where thousands of Catholics and atheists discuss and debate the original content.

ZENIT: Is dialogue a lost art?

Vogt: If it's not lost, it's certainly diminishing. Social media, of course, has played no small role in this, primarily because it bends toward narcissism. When you log-in to Facebook, the site asks, "What's on your mind?" Twitter greets by asking, "What's happening?" Both questions suggest a dangerous fact, that the whole world is waiting with bated breath to learn what you think about everything. It's no surprise then that most people head to online comment boxes to share their views instead of listening to those of others.

Another enemy of true dialogue is our incessant desire to be right. There's a funny picture floating around the Internet featuring a man on his computer and his wife calling him to bed. The man shouts in reply, "I'll be there in a minute! Someone is wrong on the Internet!" That attitude is prevalent online and just destroys fruitful discussion.

Ancient thinkers like Socrates were far less interested in winning an argument than in finding the truth, which is why they asked questions more than they spoke. We need to recapture that spirit of curiosity and hunger for the Truth, and if Catholics set the tone, atheists will soon sing along.

ZENIT: Social media has given us a certain platform from which to proclaim our views with something as simple as changing our Facebook profile pictures. Yet, it can be difficult (impossible?) to dialogue or converse from a Twitter feed or a Facebook comment. What do you think of social media's role in seeking truth today?

Vogt: It's no secret that most cultural dialogue on the Internet is shallow. You mention the perfect example with the Facebook profile photo. When the marriage debate started heating up here in America, thousands of same-sex "marriage" supporters changed their Facebook profile to an equals sign, suggesting they stand for "marriage equality." Few of those people, however, were open to a serious discussion about the topic. Whenever someone posed a formidable intellectual argument against redefining marriage, opponents typically dismissed them and branded them "bigots" or "religious zealots."

Yet despite this, I don't think the solution is to ignore social networks. Social media is a lot like the ocean, a mix of shallow waves and deep caverns. We Catholics must swim at both heights. We need modern Chestertons, defending God with pithiness and charm in the shallows of Twitter. And we need modern Augustines, diving deep into blog comment boxes to set them ablaze with the lumen fidei. Scuba-diving and cave-diving, we need both, for as the offline world attests the former often leads to the latter.